BEIRUT: The Egyptian writer Sonallah Ibrahim published his first and most powerful novel, “Tilka al-Raaiha (That Smell),” when he was just 29 years old, and some 24 months out of prison.
That was in 1966. In the nearly five decades since, the book has been banned, pulped, censored, confiscated, radically cut and republished in rogue editions. It has been translated into English once, rather badly, and again, quite brilliantly.
Now paired with selections from Ibrahim’s prison journals, “That Smell” has been published once again. The new edition, edited and translated by Robyn Creswell, for the first time stays true to the style of the original, which has been variously described by critics as “bleak,” “zombified,” “pared-down,” “curt” and “unliterary,” and by Ibrahim, simply and urgently, as “ugly.”
To this day, “That Smell” is a modernist masterpiece, a peerless provocation and a lodestar in the history of Arabic literature. All that, and consider this: The story for which Ibrahim is best known covers no more than 44 pages of clipped and brutal prose.
In his late teens, Ibrahim had been a lackluster law student. He was easily distracted from his coursework but deeply committed to the core positions of the political left. In pursuit of social justice, he never intended to be a writer and considered himself an activist above all else.
He joined a Marxist party known as Haditu, the Arabic acronym for the Democratic Movement for National Liberation. He supported the revolution of 1952 and the rise of coup-leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser to the presidency. He aligned himself with the intellectual labor of dismantling imperialism and constructing a viable socialist state.
On the side, he harbored a quiet love for pulp fiction, adventure novels and spy thrillers.
Then, on the pivot between adolescence and adulthood, Ibrahim was arrested, charged with conspiracy and sentenced to seven years of hard labor in a desert prison camp west of Cairo. Abdel-Nasser’s devastatingly efficient roundup of political opponents and potential adversaries put virtually all of the Egyptian communists (and much of the Muslim Brotherhood) behind bars.
Ibrahim was released in 1964 – five years later and two years early – as part of a calculated overture to Nikita Khrushchev. The Soviet premier was set to attend a ceremony at the Kremlin-financed Aswan High Dam. While accepting the USSR’s patronage with one hand, the Egyptian regime was snuffing out Egypt’s communists with the other. Ibrahim and his colleagues were cut loose, then, to dampen the glare of the irony.
Ibrahim experienced unconscionable acts of cruelty during his imprisonment, and if the protagonist of “That Smell” is to be understood as even faintly autobiographical, then he emerged in many ways a broken man.
In the preface to a 1986 edition of the book, he describes “acts like beating an unarmed man to death, or shoving a tire pump up his anus, or electric cords into his penis,” but he also likens prison to his education, his university, the place and time where he discovered the compulsion to write.
After his release, Ibrahim toiled away on a novel about his childhood, but he was frustrated with both what he was writing and how.
“I had lost the fire that lit my pen in prison,” he explained.
At the time Ibrahim was under house arrest, and he was documenting his days – his boredom, his listlessness, his anger, his malaise – in the briefest and bleakest of terms. One day, he realized that was the book. Those sharp, cruel and relentless sentences were his style. When it was published, the effect of “That Smell” was explosive.
An unnamed protagonist, understood to be a political prisoner, is set free. The police, who will keep him under house arrest, want to escort him home, but he has nowhere to go. His brother turns him away, as does an old friend. The police put him in a holding pen for the night.
There, the protagonist encounters a man who “let out a strange and horrible howl then stood up and came over, staring at me and laughing in my face and then sat down next to me. He stared into space, confused. He howled. A big young man got up and hit him in the face. The madman raised his arms to protect his face and said, Don’t hit me. The young man hit him and hit him and I heard the sound of bones cracking.”
The next morning, his sister arrives and takes him to her apartment. He smokes, tries to write, and masturbates with grim desperation. He tries to sleep with his ex-girlfriend but she turns him away. He tries to sleep with a prostitute but he cannot.
He visits the wife of a friend and fellow prisoner who died in jail. He takes her daughter to the pool for a swim and she nearly drowns. On their way home, she tells him that if anyone asks, she will pretend he is her father.
The protagonist wanders the streets, takes the metro and sees a man lying dead in the streets, his body covered with bloodied newspapers. He sees women alone, weeping, makeup streaked down their faces. He maps Cairo with his movements.
“Wastewater covered the ground,” Ibrahim writes.
“The smell was unbearable.”
Not all is despair. He daydreams vividly about women, both known and anonymous, whom he desires. He watches his neighbors, spying two women in a clandestine kiss. Then he visits an old friend who sums up their situation. “At the beginning it was a noble cause, now it’s a curse.”
When “That Smell” was first published in 1966, it was immediately censored in Egypt, though clandestine and counterfeit copies made the rounds. In Beirut the groundbreaking poetry journal “Shir” published a heavily edited (effectively self-censored) version without Ibrahim’s permission. It wasn’t available in its full and proper form in Arabic until 1986.
The translator Denys Johnson-Davies, well known for his good work on the oeuvre of Naguib Mahfouz, among others, made Ibrahim’s prose sound elegant in English. Creswell has now restored its edge, and with it the sense of deep and irrevocable loss at its heart.
Sonallah Ibrahim’s “That Smell & Notes from Prison,” edited and translated by Robyn Creswell, is out now from New Directions.